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Ancient Athens consisted of the city itself and the large triangular peninsula known as Attica, which juts southward into the Aegean Sea. In antiquity Attica was settled with numerous villages and towns (demes), whose inhabitants were full citizens of the Athenian state. The city of Athens sits on a large coastal plain in northwest Attica, surrounded by mountains. Running through the plain in a northeast-southwest orientation is a long limestone ridge. Near its southwest end, this ridge comprises the Acropolis, a steep-sided, freestanding crag which became the citadel and primary sanctuary of the Classical city. The ridge ends at the southwest in two hills west of the Acropolis, the Mouseion (modern Philopappos Hill) and the Hill of the Nymphs, with the Pnyx lying between them. It also continues northeast of the Acropolis, for the most part lying outside the limits of the ancient city; the highest point, a conical peak which reaches 273 meters above sea level, is known as Lykabettos, now a clear reference point rising above the sprawling modern city; beyond, the ridge continues northeast as modern Tourkovouni (ancient Brilessos or Anchesmos).
The Classical city of Athens developed around the Acropolis, which served both as the principal sanctuary and as a fortified place of refuge. Numerous other sanctuaries were established around the base of the hill (see figs. 239-242). Beyond, a circuit wall 6.5 kilometers in length enclosed the lower city. On gently sloping ground to the northwest lay the Agora, the great open square which served as the civic center and central marketplace (see figs. 243-245). Around its sides were clustered the major public buildings needed to run the city on a day-to-day basis: senate house, archives, magistrates' offices, law courts, bureau of standards, mint, and the like. Just to the east lay the center of town in the Roman period, represented by the Roman Agora and a great building containing a library donated by the emperor Hadrian. Some 500 meters to the northwest of the Classical Agora was an area known as the Kerameikos (potters' quarter; see fig. 246). Here a long section of the city wall has been found, together with two of the principal gates: the Dipylon (double gate) and the Sacred Gate. The roads just outside these gates were lined with tombs, and the Kerameikos area served as the most prestigious, though by no means the only, cemetery of the city.
Moving counter-clockwise within the city walls, we next encounter the ridge west of the Acropolis which carried the Pnyx (see figs. 127, 148), the great theatral area cut from the rock to serve as the meeting place of all the Athenians when they gathered in the assembly (ekklesia). East of the Pnyx a rocky outrunner of the Acropolis rises up. Here was the original meeting place of a council of elders which took its name from the hill: Areopagos (Hill of Ares). The area to the southeast of the Acropolis was occupied by the largest temple of Athens, the Olympieion, which was dedicated to Zeus. Individual monuments have been excavated elsewhere, but for the most part the rest of ancient Athens lies buried under the modern town. Outside the city walls were the three great gymnasia of Athens: the Academy, the Lyceum, and Kynosarges. The port of Athens, Peiraieus, lies 7 kilometers away toward the west, a low rocky peninsula with three well-protected, deep natural harbors: Mounychia, Zea, and Kantharos (see fig. 260). These sheltered the great Athenian fleet, as well as providing space for the huge volume of sea trade. Just beyond the Peiraieus lies the island of Salamis, an Athenian dependency for much of antiquity.
Three rivers pass through the plain, the two biggest lying beyond the limits of the ancient city. To the north, the Kephisos River rises in the foothills of Mount Parnes and makes its way, for 27 kilometers, to the sea at Phaleron. To the south, the Ilissos winds along the foot of Mount Hymettos to the southeast of Athens. Between them, the Eridanos rises on the slopes of Lykabettos Hill and flows north of the Acropolis, passing through the Agora. It continues northwestward, exiting the city through the Sacred Gate, and disappears Underground several hundred meters farther on, at the edge of the present German excavations of the Kerameikos. From that point it made its way to the sea. It was canalized by the mid-fifth century B.C. for much of its length where it passed through the city. Ancient sources indicate that pollution was a problem even in antiquity:
In his Collection of Rivers, Kallimachos says that it makes him laugh if anyone makes bold to write that the Athenian maidens "draw pure liquid from the Eridanos," from which even cattle would hold aloof. (Strabo 9.1.19)
This concern over pollution of the rivers is attested to for the Ilissos as well; a fifth-century inscription prohibits the washing of hides upstream of the sanctuary of Herakles (IG I 257).
The plain of Athens is bounded by four mountains. To the west, Mount Aigaleos runs down to the sea; a pass through it carried the Sacred Way to the Thriasian plain and the important town of Eleusis, with its sanctuary of Demeter. To the north, Mount Parnes separated Athens from Thebes and Boiotia. To the northeast is Mount Pentele, source of the fine white marble used and exported by the Athenians for centuries. And to the southeast, closing Athens off from the rest of Attica, is Mount Hymettos, crowned with a sanctuary to Zeus as weather god and famous in antiquity for fine honey.
Beyond Pentele and Hymettos lay the rest of Attica, some of it hilly country, part of it a large arable plain. The northeast limit was occupied by the towns of Rhamnous and Marathon, both on the sea, facing the large island of Euboia. The southern tip is Cape Sounion, which was dedicated to the sea god Poseidon.
Attica, and therefore Athens, was rich in certain products, poor in others. Grapes and olives have always done well, grain less so. The area is a dry one, and when Athens prospered and the population grew, Attica could not produce enough, and food had to be imported, especially grain. Attica also failed to provide enough timber for Athenian needs; in addition to housing and fuel, immense amounts of timber were needed for the huge fleet from which Athens derived its power. Plato, writing in the early fourth century B.C., describes an earlier time when the ecological system was better: But at that epoch the country was unimpaired, and for its mountains it had high arable hills, and in place of the moorlands, as they are now called, it contained plains full of rich soil; and it had much forest land in its mountains, of which there are visible signs even to this day; for there are some mountains which now have nothing but food for bees, but they had trees no very long time ago, and the rafters from the trees felled there to roof the largest buildings are still sound. And in addition there were many lofty trees of cultivated species; and the country produced boundless pasturage for f locks. Moreover, it was enriched by the yearly rains from Zeus, which were not lost to it, as now, by f lowing from the bare land into the sea; but the soil it had was deep and therein it received the water, storing it up in the retentive, loamy soil. (Critias 111 C-D)
Beautiful white marble, large deposits of silver, and excellent clay all contributed to Athenian prominence in the historical period, though they were of little interest to the earliest human inhabitants of the area.
Excerpted from THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF ATHENS by JOHN M. CAMP Copyright © 2001 by John M. Camp. Excerpted by permission.
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|Pt. I||The Monuments of Athens|
|1||Introduction: The Physical Setting||3|
|2||The Prehistoric Period||11|
|Paleolithic and Neolithic||11|
|Early Bronze Age||12|
|Middle Bronze Age||13|
|Late Bronze Age||14|
|3||Early and Archaic Athens||21|
|The Dark Ages||21|
|The Eighth and Seventh Centuries||22|
|The Sixth Century||26|
|The Rise of Democracy||39|
|The Persian Wars||47|
|The Temple of Athena Nike||90|
|The Lower City||100|
|The Peloponnesian War||117|
|The Fourth Century||137|
|7||Late Roman Athens||223|
|Pt. II||Site Summaries|
|Mouseion Hill, Pnyx, Areopagos||264|
|Olympieion, Southeast Athens||266|
|East Coast: Steireia, Prasiai (Porto Raphti, Koroni, Perati)||281|
|West Coast: Euonymon, Aixone, Cape Zoster, Cave of Pan (Trachones, Glyphada, Vouliagmeni, Vari)||315|